When seventh-grader Kelise Baugh came to the first Girlz Empowerment Zone after-school program session at Lewis and Clark Middle School, she didn’t know what to expect.
She entered a commons room Feb. 26 alongside about a dozen of her fellow female students to find young women seated at tables. After being asked to sit near one of these ladies, Kelise chose a seat next to Jada Hunter.
Jada, a freshman at Lincoln University, is one of 20 female students who have volunteered as a mentor for the program that builds confidence and character in young ladies using their voices and talents already inside of them. In fact, these women also have sought help through the LU Women’s Resource Center, which is part of this collaborative effort of Lewis and Clark Middle School and Lincoln University Cooperative Extension.
When all the mentors and mentees dove into an entertaining and informative introductory exercise during that first session, Kelise and Jada fell easily into conversation. They learned interesting facts about each other, laughed and enjoyed sharing some of those details with the rest of the group.
“I thought, ‘I can work with her,’” Kelise said as the two smiled. “She is pretty and funny.”
With an even more interactive and engaging session looking at 2019 goals and creating vision boards on March 5, Kelise, Jada and all the young ladies involved in the Girlz Empowerment Zone are excited and eager to work together to become better, successful people. And its founder and director, Callie Newsom, can’t wait to see this program continue to grow.
Callie, area educator in youth development for Lincoln University Cooperative Extension, knows what it is like to need someone standing in your corner. The 24-year-old grew up in Chicago and attended inner city schools, saying she simply felt she was often experiencing life without the kind of support she truly needed.
“I created this program because I know what it is like … going through big life events and not having people and a place to coax and shape you along the way,” she said. “They now experience life even younger. They have these real life challenges – cyber bullying is a real thing. They deal with depression and suicidal thoughts, and mental health is on the rise. Growing up I wish I had somebody that could have came in earlier and just do these things that help make you successful in the end.”
Callie had a few mentors back in Chicago, but when she came to Lincoln University she found additional mentors that helped shape her to be the successful young lady she is today.
Now holding a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business administration, Newsom deals directly with youth in her work and through her church, The Joshua House. Her job is split between managing a teen pregnancy and prevention group that takes her to five counties in the Missouri Bootheel, Kansas City and St. Louis. The youth all get come together once a year in Jefferson City for a Rites of Passage ceremony where they can network and share in their experiences learning about STDs, HIV, abstinence and other topics.
She also oversees many programs, including a slew of camps for youth, such as an agriculture discovery, sports, outdoor ranger and medical camp. She also works with area youth and has the chance to develop programs, like the Girlz Empowerment Zone.
From both her work and personal experience, Callie saw statistics matched her thoughts on needed mentorship for young ladies, particularly those in middle school. According to Callie’s research, statistics showed young people who have no positive figure of the same gender are also statistically much more likely to feel suicidal than those who do. In total, more than a third of youngsters – 34 percent – admitted to having felt suicidal at some point, but this figure rose to 42 percent for those without positive figure in their lives. In addition, out of 2,170 16 to 25 year olds, revealed that one in three young men and almost a quarter of young women have no positive figure to look up to. It found that this was likely to impact significantly on their mental well-being and their outlook on life, Callie found in her research.
A Girl Scout research institute survey found that more young African- American girls aspire to be leaders from any other group – 53 percent compared to 50 percent of Hispanic and 34 percent of Caucasian girls. Yet by the time they reach high school, just 11 percent of African-American girls were still nursing those dreams.
“The statistics for teenage pregnancy, school dropout and early sexual activity is at an all-time high. Providing these young women with support and education they need to prevent these hurdles from arising gives them a better chance at reaching, and finishing college and venturing into career world as successful women,” Callie said.
Callie said middle school children are the ones that especially fall through the cracks.
“You have organizations and community programs at the elementary schools and in your high school. Now, your middle schools are hit it or miss it,” she said. “It is also where those behavior issues start to form, as well as self-esteem, confidence and identity issues that continue to shape and form and will continue for the rest of their lives if they don’t have someone walking alongside of them to give them those positive affirmations and that correction when needed.”
Callie knew action was needed and approached her supervisor with the concept of the Girlz Empowerment Zone. The program’s mission is to provide young ladies a safe environment to grow to become tomorrow’s effective leaders, compassionate citizens and empowered ladies in their community.
Through intergenerational mentorship, the young ladies ages 10-14 meet their goals, aspirations and dreams under the guidance of ladies who have or are reaching their own success in life. To achieve this, Callie and the Lincoln University Cooperative Extension partnered with the LU Women’s Resource Center to bring this program to Lewis and Clark Middle School.
“The center had young ladies that are still being trained and groomed at college life. This is a perfect way to show young ladies that college ladies are still being shaped, groomed and fine-tuning themselves to be even better with mentoring, as well,” she added.
Heather Robinson, program coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center, said one of the main things the program provides is academic programming that equips LU students with tools to navigate through life successfully. They break that programming into three divisions with freshmen in the League of Scholars, sophomores in the Diamond League and juniors and seniors in the Sapphire League.
“They each have different areas of focus. The freshmen focus on transitioning into college life and personal development more so than anything, and we make sure they get the resources they need at our academic success center, health center and other programs at the university,” said Heather, who has been with the Women’s Resource Center since it began in 2015. “In the Diamond League, we develop them career-wise, talking about careers, doing professional development and looking at what scholarships are available on campus and elsewhere. In the Sapphire League, this is were we really hone in on internships, working with career services and what the next steps will be for jobs.”
Heather said most of the students are a part of one of these leagues. However, the Women’s Resource Center also provides a multitude of events, presentations, seminars and activities, including awareness events having done ones recently for women’s heart health, suicide prevention and domestic violence. The center has a multitude of other resources they offer students, including the Blue Tiger Boutique. Here, students can check out clothes for class presentations or job interviews and stock on essentials such as feminine hygiene products, lotion, toothbrushes and much more.
In addition, Brysen Russell, who has also attended many of the Girlz Empowerment Zone sessions, is the Green Dot Program coordinator through the Women’s Resource Center. This program is an organization built on the premise that can measurably and systematically reduce violence within any given community. They do prevention training on campus for sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, dating violence and more, as well as provide information and resources to know what to do and how to report it.
Heather was thrilled to have 20-plus LU students sign up to mentor in the Girlz Empowerment Zone, and she believes it is an important collaborative effort between LU, its students and the local schools.
“Having that extra support is important. You have your parents and your teachers, but to have someone outside of that to lean on is important too. If you they need to have conversations that may feel uncomfortable, they may not be able to do that with anybody else in their life. But maybe these ladies are women they look up to and can have those uncomfortable conversations an share things they might not be able to share with others,” Heather said. “It is a growing experience for both sides of it – the young ladies here at the school and our scholar students.”
After the first two sessions, the Girlz Empowerment Zone mentors and mentees met about twice a month through the end of this school year, learning while enjoying unique activities and most importantly, having fun. Callie said some of those activities were a confidence boosting experience called Beauty Behind the Beat, looking internally at themselves with a mirror exercise, a stress release exercise and a talk about cyber bullying and bullying with community leaders and officers with the Lincoln University Police Department speaking to the group.
“Then we’ll launch ‘her story,’ where they will come back to their 2019 goals they started with their vision boards (made in early March). They will then fine-tune those goals and how they can progress with those on their own, discovering how to tell their own personal stories,” Callie said in March, adding this first Girlz Empowerment Zone session will end with a end of the year celebration in early May. However, the connections made between mentees and mentors will not end there.
“This year, our eighth-graders will be graduating and we’ll go to those graduations. We can be there for them and be there for their big upcoming life events, staying in touch with them,” Callie added.
Planning to launch the program again starting in the 2019-20 school year at Lewis and Clark Middle School, Callie also wants to eventually expand out the program to Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Jefferson City’s alternative school.
Callie is taking the Girlz Empowerment Zone one step at a time but has already seen the success in the program. While the group was talking about 2018 and looking ahead to their 2019 goals, she heard how the young ladies and mentors were both planning for their futures.
“Listening to the ladies talking about their goals – ‘I’m going to get into less fights’ and ‘I am learning how to control my attitude and anger’ – they are getting this now how you can set up to be successful,” she said. “Now, they have these women who have gone through the same things helping them as they go through those things. … You have someone rooting for you and holding you accountable. You reach back and pull each other up. That is how we can create a better community and for young ladies growing up in Jefferson City. … It starts with a seed and we just see how and where it grows.”
Kelise was already impressed by Jada after the first two sessions. She said Jada is “pretty and funny.” Jada is equally impressed by Kelise, seeing how much she has grown between the first two sessions.
“I have been helping Kelise grow a lot and I see her improving already. Some of the things she was doing the first time, she is now growing from and wants to be better,” Jada said.
Kelise enjoyed putting together her vision board with her 2019 goals, adding how she wants to continue her pursuit with basketball and be nicer to others. Her mentor Jada added a favorite scripture and other important things that she feels will have special meaning by being involved in the Girlz Empowerment Zone.
“This (board) is more personal to me … because I want to grow as a person, too, while I help these girls,” Jada said. “I feel like everyone needs someone to look up to and everyone needs someone who is a good example of who they can be when they get older and walk that path in their own lives.”